On the morning of 6 November 1817, the country woke to the awful news that Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales had died after giving birth to a stillborn son. She was just 21. As the only legitimate grandchild of George III her death ended the line of succession and plunged the kingdom into deepest mourning.
Charlotte was the only child of the Prince of Wales, then Prince Regent (later George IV) and his wife, Caroline of Brunswick. Her childhood was coloured by their unhappy marriage, and by their continual acrimonious disputes. Allowed limited contact with her mother, Charlotte lived in a separate establishment, cared for by governesses and servants; but she had a warm relationship with her grandfather, George III. Her biographer describes her as “fair and plump, bright, high spirited and boisterous” (J.S.Lewis, Oxford DNB). She grew up to be hugely popular with the public, a bright hope for the future in contrast to the dissipation and extravagance of her father. Her marriage to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg in May 1816 set the seal on her happiness and there were huge crowds and great celebrations in London on her wedding day.
The unexpected shock of Charlotte’s death just 18 months later swept the nation in a tide of grief. The shops closed for two weeks. The Royal Exchange, the Law Courts, and the docks followed suit. The linen drapers ran out of black cloth as even the poor wore black armbands. Popular composers of the day captured their feelings in words and music. We can see this in a collection of sheet music held in the Special Collections at the University of Southampton. George Kiallmark, for example, wrote: “Farewell bright Star! A tribute to the memory of her late Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte of Wales”.
The photo below shows the title page to a piece by John Parry in the same volume: “Mourn England Mourn. An elegy written and composed on the lamentable demise of Her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte of Wales.”
The words of the first verse read:
Mourn England mourn, thy lovely Rose is dead,
Its beauties faded and its fragrance shed,
Britannia’s brightest Hope, and Albion’s pride,
Fled and blighted, when Cambria’s Princess died,
What heart but feels, what breast but heaves a sigh?
What stoic seen without a tearful eye?
But ah! what must thy Parents, Husband feel?
Their grief is more than language can reveal!
Locally, the High Sheriff of Hampshire called a county meeting at Winchester to propose addresses of condolence to Prince Leopold and the Prince Regent – who were indeed grief stricken. The latter was too prostrate to attend Charlotte’s funeral. At the county meeting of nobility, gentry, clergy, freeholders, and other inhabitants “most respectable and numerous”, Lord Palmerston moved the address to the Prince Regent. His words were reported in the local newspaper:
“Never, indeed, in the annals of our history had there existed so universal a feeling throughout the nation as that which had been excited by the loss we had lately sustained – it was felt by all, not merely as a public calamity, but with the same deep and personal affliction that follows the loss of a near and dear relation. The career of the Princess Charlotte had indeed been short; but in that short course she had in a most remarkable degree conciliated the affections and gained the esteem of the people; with all those milder virtues and gentler qualities which more peculiarly belong to and adorn her sex… she combined a vigour of intellect, and a masculine energy of mind that eminently qualified her for the high station which we had fondly hoped she was one day destined to fill…”
But while the public sympathised, the public also blamed. Charlotte had died after the ordeal of a fifty-hour labour. While the Prince Regent refused to blame Sir Richard Croft – the accoucheur responsible for Charlotte’s care – many others did, and three months after the death of the Princess, he committed suicide. These tragic deaths were to lead to significant changes in obstetric practices in the future.
Two other items held in the Special Collections show us a glimpse of Princess Charlotte. The first, is a lock of her hair, with its original wrapper, dated 1799, MS69/4/2. Charlotte was born on 7 January 1796, and would have been a small child when this was cut. In Victorian times it was popular to keep locks of hair from loved ones, and hair jewellery was very fashionable. This clipping may have been given to Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, as a memento after her death. It survives amongst the papers of Christopher Collins, who was for many years the personal confidential servant to the Duke.
The Collins archive also includes a manuscript copy of a piece of music called ‘Lord Wellington’s March’. A note on the colourful title page states: “Composed by Her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte of Wales.” Charlotte was an accomplished pianist and this piece is scored for piano. It is a rousing march in honour of the hero of Waterloo – bright and energetic, much like its young composer.
Click on the link below to hear an arrangement played by the Band of the Welsh Guards: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uNqWu49xO0
Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales 1796-1817.